In the 1880s, the term “dive bar” referred to an illegal drinking den, especially one located in a basement. By 1961, the dictionary definition of a “dive” was a disreputable resort for drinking.
More recently, in its 2010 guide to America’s greatest bars, Playboy referred to a dive bar as “a church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves, and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”
That, my friends, is pure poetry—though of course, not everyone sees it that way. I’ve also read that it’s tempting to speak too theoretically about dive bars, when really, they’re just a place to get a drink. (To those people, I say: May you choke on warm Hamm’s foam and get a chewy bar popcorn kernel stuck in your teeth.)
I love the fact that walking into a dive can feel like going down the stairs of my parents’ ’80s split-level home—the one with the shag carpet, the wallpaper mimicking real wood, the lit-up Budweiser signs, and the built-in corner bar with dusty Baileys bottles. My grandma had a basement like this, too. Hers was fully blanketed in cold black-and-white tiles, accented with a burnt-orange bar and gorgeous forest-green ash trays, lit like a 1970s detective sitcom.
St. Paul dives feel a little like a first home, an allusion to the past, a place to land after a long day. I’ve lived in St. Paul for years, and the bars I frequent are nostalgia nooks essenced with the smell of stale beer and hot Heggies cheese. The employees don’t give a shit about admiration, though they do command your respect. And most importantly, our St. Paul dive bars are always there, their tap lines heartlines for the slightly lost, angry, and true.
What it about these bars that make us feel the imperative pull of a lost past? After doing hours and hours of research (read: drinking Grain Belt and eating Heggies), I’ve come up with something of a dive bar checklist. Let’s call this the “seven unpretentious pillars” of the St. Paul dive.
St. Paul loves Hamm’s—who can blame us? The story of Hamm’s is the story of American beer. The brewery was founded by Theodore Hamm (a German immigrant) in the Midwest (Phalen Creek Valley, St. Paul) and expanded aggressively (South to Texas, and later to the coasts). Its memorable slogan—“From the Land of Sky Blue Waters”—is a glorious battle cry of leisure. Hamm’s and its rah-rah legacy hang proudly in nearly every St. Paul dive. Brunson’s, located in what was known in the 1850s as the Railroad Island neighborhood, is a hoppy and wholesome Hamm’s museum. Among the paraphernalia: one (1) very rare glowing Hamm’s motion “aged and aged, from moon to moon” starry skies sign, one (1) “Born in the Land of the Sky Blue Waters” ad banner, and one (1) life-size vintage sign of a lady dressed in white holding a tray of Hamm’s, to name a few.
Holiday decor year-round
St. Paul dives often have a certain glow—literally, due to the lights that were hung many Christmases ago. One of my favorites, Bogey’s Lounge, has tinsel wrapped around its wooden pillars that could’ve gone up in ’82. Half Time Rec outlines every framed Wild jersey and Paddy Shack Burger sign with lights, along with their entire ceiling. It’s an eight-lane highway of blinking rainbow. A Newcastle Brown bar sign lights up the back wall: “This Will Look Great In Somebody’s Basement.” In general, during the holidays, St. Paul bars go all out, decking their interiors with whatever lights they can find—the tinsel misfits, if you will—and they blink and glow rainbow colors all over the place. A comforting, festive mess.
A little R&R
By that, we mean Regulars and Routine. The neon specials signs (hot turkey, corn, and mashed potatoes every Tuesday), the Saturday meat raffle crowd, the same bartender making $5 bloody Marys behind the bar on Sundays—all pay homage to the comfort of the expected. You just know there’s a nacho cheese machine on the back bar plugged in next to a mini oven churning out fresh orders of $8 Heggies. Joe and Stan’s, a great place to play trivia on Tuesday nights, is so endearingly predictable, albeit in ways that feel specific to St. Paul. One young gentleman shows up for trivia every week, and every week, programs the jukebox app to play “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister right as he walks in at around 7:45. Elsewhere on Tuesdays, the the Dubliner Pub & Cafe on University has free Irish Céilí dancing, with live music and dozens of weekly dancers who light up the floor with their grandmas and children.
Drinks are Reliable and Retired. Your options rarely change, and sometimes the beer comes out a little warm from the tap. But that’s part of the charm—and why ordering an ice-cold Mich Golden Draft Light from the beer fridge with a glass of olives (hello, Minnesota martini) is always a great idea.
Heritage and community are displayed on every surface, showcasing the humans who keep the place in business. J.R. Mac’s, a corner bar on West Seventh, has an entire wall dedicated to regulars; Shamrock’s walls are papered all the way up to the ceiling with local parapheniala. These bars are museums of pride: shrines for Best Burger awards, local sports teams, beer favorites, and bar kickball league trophies.
The High Lifes and the lowlifes
As a crucial element in the neighborhood charm, dive bars are open to all kinds. You have old ladies coming in for bingo on Saturdays or early turkey dinner on Tuesdays, but also men at the end of the bar screaming, “WHY DON’T YOU SHAVE YOUR MOTHER’S BACK THEN!?” for no apparent reason. There’s the couple that gets too drunk and asks the waitress if she wants to have a threesome sometime. The men drinking Jameson straight at 8 a.m., after a night shift. The college kids here for karaoke because they heard this was the secretly great spot after midnight. The visitors from up north coming in for lunch after a Wild game.
An honest lack of effort
I’ve always thought if a dive bar is true, it will lack effort, and the rest will follow. The people who work there are honest realists; this is not a place for try-hards. No one cares if the beer list is up to date, the bathrooms are a little wet, or if the bartender needs a quick break for a smoke—so long your glass is full. The “get what you get” mentality is a comfort when your server slaps a napkin down and asks, “What can I get you, honey?” The laid-back attitude feels right, an element of the obvious that’s seeped into the dusty corners and Miller Light beer mirror smears. Ah, the old reliable truth of life. Nothing is perfect. Get used to it.